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- Published on Monday, 14 June 2010 04:43
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Landmines are easy to deploy and cost as little as $3 to produce, though often as much as $1000 to remove. Their versatility allows them to be laid virtually anywhere - which combined with their relatively small size--and in some cases low metal content--makes them difficult to locate and remove. Though military doctrine calls for careful mapping and marking of minefields, and clearance upon completion of the mission, military organizations have frequently failed to remove their mines leaving behind these silent killers in nearly 80 countries around the globe.
Pre- World War I
The first improvised precursors of landmines were used in the 15th century at the battle of Agincourt in France. The term, 'mine', originated from the tactic of tunneling underground close to an enemy's defenses and packing the tunnel with explosives in order to detonate the gunpowder mix from a safe distance.
The use of mines continued in battle throughout the world in various ways through the centuries up to the American Civil War in the 1860s, when explosive devices resembling the modern antipersonnel landmine (APM) were developed. According to Dave McCracken, who authored The Landmine Action Smart Book, "Explosive mines activated by pressure, designed by Brig Gen J. Bains of the Confederate Army, made their first recorded operational appearance in the American Civil War."
Landmines were employed on a relatively small scale in some 19th century colonial campaigns and during the Russo-Japanese War (1902-1906), but did not become a weapon used in significant numbers until late in World War I.
The World Wars
Anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines were developed as tactical, defensive weapons intended to protect troops, military bases and key installations. They were also used to delay the advance of enemy troops, to deny them access to certain areas and resources and to burden them with soldiers injured by landmines. In some instances, mines were laid to maximize the demoralizing psychological effect on troops through the use of 'nuisance minefields'. Soldiers during World War I and World War II operated in a climate of fear of mines and invested valuable time and energy in clearing suspected mine areas.
Mines have been integral to military operations since World War I. Anti-vehicle (anti-tank) mines were designed and deployed for protection against the newly invented tanks and, in turn, APMs were used to protect the anti-vehicle mines from destruction by opposing infantry units. During World War II (1939 - 1945), anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were employed in large quantities throughout battle zones in dozens of countries. antipersonnel landmines were used extensively in their own right and to deter the disarming of anti-tank mines.
Post World Wars
After World War II, advances in weapons technology accelerated rapidly. In the 1960s, an antipersonnel landmine was developed that could be delivered by air and automatically activated as it hit the ground. These models, commonly called 'scatterables', made it possible to rapidly deploy large numbers of mines, rather than manually planting each mine by hand. Increasingly, scatterables and hand-deployed mines were used against civilian populations - to terrorize communities, to displace entire villages, to render fertile agricultural land unusable and to destroy national infrastructures like roads, bridges, and water sources.
With the proliferation of low-intensity conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s in many less developed areas of the world, landmines became the weapon of choice for many government troops, paramilitaries, and guerrilla forces.
Landmines were cheap, effective, and durable weapons of war, readily available, and easy to manufacture or procure locally. As landmines became more prevalent, the distinction between their defensive and offensive uses became blurred.
In addition, the traditional rule of mapping and marking all minefields became increasingly disregarded after World War II. The remote delivery of scatterable mines further led to imprecise minefield boundaries and made adequate mapping and marking of minefields altogether impossible. As a result, civilians, peacekeepers, aid workers and soldiers alike had no way of knowing if they entered a minefield. Rain and other weather often shift minefields. Without clear records, and with the impacts of weather and time, identifying and cleaning up after a conflict became even harder.
Adapted with permission from material produced by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network